About Me

I am Associate Professor and Chair of the History Department at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth. I am also the Academic Director of the Clemente Course in the Humanities, in New Bedford MA. Author of "Social Security and the Middle Class Squeeze" (Praeger, 2005) and the forthcoming "Saul Alinsky the Dilemma of Race in the Post-War City" (University of Chicago Press), my teaching and scholarship focuses on American urban history, social policy, and politics. I am presently writing a book on home ownership in modern America, entitled "Castles Made of Sand? Home Ownership and the American Dream." I live in Providence RI, where I have served on the School Board since March 2015. All opinions posted here are my own.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Reading by the light of the divine spark -- Leonard Cohen, Shalom.

Today Leonard Cohen is gone.

For reasons that are not entirely clear to me, in the last few years I found myself drawn to his life and work. The man lived at a rhythm that deeply resonates with me. Cohen seems to have found some sort of sustainable equipoise, a stance between morality and spirit, a balance within uncertainty, and a marriage between reason, Judaism , and Buddhism that draws me in. There is something here I need to take on board in some way.  Perhaps you will find something there too. 
Goodnight, sensei. 
I'll start with his poem/song "Anthem" -- 'forget your perfect offering, there is a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in." 
It is, I believe, evocative of an old Jewish creation story (also found in Quaker belief, I think) that posits the existence of a divine light in all things, revealed to us not in spite of our imperfections, but because of them.  The story comes from a 16th century rabbi, Isaac Luria.  
The powerful thing about it for me -- an agnostic -- is that it isn't simply a cosmology, an attempt to explain the existence of the universe and the human race.  Rather, it imbricates human beings directly into the divine project as actors, by calling upon us to seek out the divine light in all things and all acts, and to engage in tikkun olam, the mending and repair of the world.  There is no end to this process, and no reward really (no heaven, hell, etc).  It is, rather, our telos.  It is how we are to write the book of our common lives.
As Wallace Stevens once wrote, "the imperfect is our paradise."  Interestingly, Pope Francis expressed a similar sense a year or so ago, though obviously giving expression to a different faith tradition.  In an interview, Francis posited the blessedness of imperfection and uncertainty:
In this quest to seek and find God in all things there is still an area of uncertainty. There must be. If a person says that he met God with total certainty and is not touched by a margin of uncertainty, then this is not good. For me, this is an important key. If one has the answers to all the questions—that is the proof that God is not with him. It means that he is a false prophet using religion for himself. The great leaders of the people of God, like Moses, have always left room for doubt. You must leave room for the Lord, not for our certainties; we must be humble. Uncertainty is in every true discernment that is open to finding confirmation in spiritual consolation.
Our life is not given to us like an opera libretto, in which all is written down; but it means going, walking, doing, searching, seeing … We must enter into the adventure of the quest for meeting God; we must let God search and encounter us.
Don't look for perfection, measure ourselves and others by it, or expect it.  It is in the imperfect where we find the divine light -- or love, if you prefer.  As Cohen puts it, "every heart to love will come, like a refugee."


Wednesday, November 09, 2016

My RIDE testimony in opposition to the expansion of Achievement First charter schools in Rhode Island

I come to you wearing many hats tonight. I am a member of the Providence School Board. I am a professor of the history of American cities and politics. And I am a parent of two children who have attended a charter school here in Providence. And I am speaking tonight in opposition to the proposal for the expansion of AF. As a parent and as a scholar, I understand that charter schools have a place in urban education, in line with their original purpose as laboratory schools, to help improve practice in the public schools. I am not an ideologue on this issue. My family has been well-served by the charter school my kids attended. I know people who work at AF schools here. They are good people, doing good work, for the best of reasons. 

But there are bigger issues of policy here, in a democratic society that needs robust, open and transparent public institutions in order to function justly, and which no parent waiting list should override. I have many reasons for opposing the AF proposal for expansion, but I will focus on 3. 

First, whatever benefit a couple thousand kids may get from this, it will come at the expense of 20,000 Providence kids and their families, and the thousands of young people in the future who will seek and are entitled to a public education here. In the next decade the AF proposal plans to draw more than 2000 students away from the PPSD – almost 10% of the school population. Under the current funding calculus, the fiscal impact will be inequitable, irreparable, and devastating. I would also ask you to keep in mind that Providence has only just in the last week achieved a boost in our bond rating – and that Moody’s has warned that the dramatic rise in charter school enrollment nationwide will create “negative credit pressure” on school districts in economically weak areas, The NAACP has recently called for a national moratorium on charter schools in part for this reason. While they say that the money follows the students, this isn’t really true. Public schools have costs that charters do not, like operations/facilities, and pension contributions. One of the strengths of a true public school is its ethical and legal obligation to educate all. In contrast, charter schools control enrollment — in both direct and subtle ways. The public schools have greater proportions of students who need ELL and special education services. The district will have twice as many kids needing special education than AF, for example, which is very expensive. Traumatized young refugees from war-torn places show up, often alone, to our public schools everyday. And we accept them, and try to do our best by them, because despite the events of last night, that is the best of who we are. It is what it means to have a public school system – common schools, they used to call them. I cannot imagine a worse time for us to be weakening our public institutions, especially one so central to our civic immune system and our future as a pluralistic society as public schooling. 

Second, what is being proposed here is effectively a high-risk social and financial experiment with our children, without a Plan B. When we have a public school system that is over-burdened and underfunded, it defies common sense as well as common decency to siphon money from it to build a second, parallel and less accountable one. It is akin to responding to a fire in your kitchen by selling your fire extinguishers to build another kitchen. We have too much child poverty, and too much segregation, and a system of paying for public education that afflicts the afflicted and comforts the comfortable. Expanding charter school seats does not fix this, and in a zero-sum resource environment it will make the problems worse. To shift our common wealth to an entity that has only been in this state since 2013 – and which has never run a middle or high school here – is roughly akin to withdrawing the money you’ve saved for college and taking it to Twin River. To justify such an act – putting the lives of 20,000 kids at stake, for the benefit of 1/10th that number – would require the situation in the public schools of Providence to be so dire, as to leave no other option. 

Which brings me to my third point. Why now? I’ve been on the School Board here for 18 months. I visit schools, and talk to teachers, principals and parents. And I am inspired by what I am seeing. The district is moving toward school autonomy, pushing resources and staff out of the central office and into the schools. We’re developing curriculum and services that are culturally responsive, and sensitive to the socio-emotional needs of our students and their families. We have received national grants, awards and attention for this work, from Carnegie, Harvard, and the White House. We are working to build an administration, staff and faculty that are more reflective of our community, and sensitive to its needs and experiences. And we are doing this despite a resource situation that is roughly akin to running up a down escalator, as the percentage of school aged kids in our city in need of ELL services balloons in the coming years, while our buildings deteriorate, and we have the space to create one pre-k classroom – one – despite the overwhelming evidence for its benefits. 

I should add that the events of last night throw the very future of federal funding for public education into doubt, at precisely the moment when public schools in our nation’s struggling cities are facing heightened costs and expectations. Now is not the time for this. Charters may be publicly paid for, but they are always privately managed; they are an example of the privatization of public services. Privatization undermines our sense of common purpose and public responsibility. It reflects a chronic sense of civic defeatism. It is a surrender to pessimism. When this state is ready to address child poverty, and housing segregation, and our regressive tax system, and a constitutional right to an equal and effective education, and the need for universal pre-K, I’m willing to listen to proposals like this. But right now, this moves us in the wrong direction, and I urge you to reject it.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Providence, pass the Community Safety Act

This was my testimony on Wednesday night September 28th, at the East Side neighborhood meeting on the Community Safety Act (CSA) here in Providence.  The East Side is a predominantly white part of the city, and the goal was to convey to our elected officials that people here care deeply about having an accountable police force and criminal justice system that both reflects and respects all the people who live within it.


In thousands of households around the country tonight, there are young black men receiving “The Talk” from someone who loves them.  It is happening in Charlotte.  It is happening in Tulsa.  It is happening in Providence.  It is happening in wealthy families, poor families, middle class families.  It is happening in the homes of black policemen.  It has happened, generation over generation, throughout the entire history of this country.  Attorney General Eric Holder, who is black, got the talk from his father when he was young – and he recently gave it to his own son.  Eric Holder, who was until recently the highest-ranking law enforcement official in the United States. 

Does everyone know what I mean by ‘the Talk’?  I am white.  My 10 year old son lives here on the East Side with us.  I doubt it ever occurred to my father to give me The Talk.  The fact that I know some of my son’s school friends have already received it, and that he will never have to, horrifies me.  This conveys a message to our children, about who we are – and who they are.  It is not a message that is consistent with any of our faith traditions, or the best of our national ones.  It tells us, in the words of black writer Ta Nehisi-Coates, that “something went very wrong, long ago…something we are scared to see straight.  That something has very little to do with the officer on the beat and everything to do with ourselves.”

Our society has tolerated the conditions which have necessitated The Talk -- even encouraged them – for centuries.  In modern societies the state, at all levels, has a monopoly on violence.  In American history, that monopoly has consistently been used to contain black people, and to protect white people and their property.  It was true under slavery, when access to arms by white individuals and white militias was 'needed' to deter and suppress slave rebellions, and to chase down fugitive slaves.  It was true out West in the 19th century, when the state used its military power (and granted white citizens related power) to displace and destroy native economies and peoples.  It was true in the Jim Crow South, where the primary role of police forces (and of the 2nd amendment) was first and foremost to reinforce the racial order.  And as blacks moved to Northern cities by the millions 1910-1970, the job of all-white urban police forces in black neighborhoods was to maintain racial boundaries in housing and public spaces; they were generally absent when needed, and abusive when present.  Virtually every Northern black protest movement of the 1960s -- and virtually every riot -- began with a focus on police brutality.  

Whether conscious or not (and for most of our history, it was very much conscious), this has been the clear will of white Americans for most of our history.  The injustice of this, Coates tells us, “compounds, congeals until there is an almost tangible sense of dread and grievance that compels a community to understand the police as objects of fear, not respect.”  When Officer Timothy Loehmann got away with murdering a 12-year-old Tamir Rice, white Americans may have believed it was aberrational, however awful – but it was consistent with generations of black experience. 
The problem, ultimately, is a deep one.  

When police officers encounter citizens of color, they do so in a situation that white Americans have spent decades constructing and defending.  Too many whites hide (literally as well as morally) from the consequences of their complicity behind housing segregation, and explain away what they can’t ignore with platitudes about black criminality and white innocence.

Our 'policing problem' is really a societal problem.  A policy problem.  A white problem.  Cops don't make policy.  Citizens do.  You can't ask people to do the dirty work of white privilege, and then blame them for being dirty. 

Just last week, the head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division – the entity tasked with investigating the police departments in Ferguson, Baltimore, and other cities – told a legal symposium that “Unconstitutional policing undermines community trust.”  “Blanket assumptions and stereotypes about certain neighborhoods and certain communities can lead residents to see the justice system as illegitimate and authorities as corrupt.  Those perceptions can drive resentment.  And resentment can prevent the type of effective policing needed to keep communities and officers safe.”

In many black and Latino communities today, police derive their power solely from the force they deploy.  This is dangerous to those being policed, but it is ultimately dangerous to do those doing the policing too.  A liberal democracy, a society based on the rule of law, will not long survive if all the law represents is brute force.

If the police are seen as having no legitimacy in certain communities -- as having a license to exercise power that is arbitrary, capricious, and unaccountable -- they will be increasingly seen as an occupying force, and mistrust and resistance to them will be seen as legitimate.  Endangered and ineffective, police will focus more and more on force protection, and will have implicit and explicit biases confirmed, further delegitimizing their authority.  Whites, fearful that the 'criminality' in black communities will threaten them, will enact policies that make the situation worse.  This is not where we are in Providence.  Not yet.  

White Americans have never lived under those conditions, not in the past, and not now.  That is why white Americans of good will have to learn their history, they have to listen as empathetically as they can, and they have to act.

The CSA is an important and powerful step in the right direction for Providence, and I fully support it.

No competent professional should fear a system of accountability, as long as there is adequate training and due process, and the system of accountability is evidence-based.  In fact, they should welcome it.  It buttresses and legitimates their authority, and it ensures that they are surrounded by other professionals who know what they're doing, enabling them to be more safe and effective.

Let us create a Providence in which the generations to come never need to give or receive The Talk, and in which police officers of all backgrounds can do the people’s will safely, effectively, and justly.